When he returned to teaching privately this semester, Vinod Menon, a physics professor at the City College of New York in Harlem, finally looked through a pile of office mail and found a cardboard box the size of a toaster.
The box, heavy enough to justify $90 in postage for US priority mail, was addressed to “Chairman, Physics Department”—its title.
Perhaps it was a thank you note from a former student, Dr. Menon thought, as he inspected the package, which was stamped November 10, 2020. It had been lying around for more than nine months, first in the campus mailroom, then in the physics bureau.
for dr. Menon, 49, who specializes in nano- and microphotonics, usually finds an exciting moment in a campus lab with a breakthrough exploration of how light interacts with matter at the quantum level.
But the case in the cardboard box gave him quite a load. It was packed with $50 and $100 bills, bundled in paper bindings, totaling $180,000.
An attached letter to Dr. Menon explained that the money was a donation intended to help needy physics and math students at City College.
“It was a complete shock – I know a lot of academics and I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he said. “I didn’t know if the college accepted cash, so I didn’t know if they would keep it.”
The letter explained the donor’s motivations. “Assuming you’re a little curious about why I’m doing this, the reason is obvious,” wrote the donor, who said he or she took advantage of the “excellent educational opportunity” to attend both Stuyvesant High School and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from City College, leading to a “long, productive, immensely rewarding” scientific career.
The note was unsigned and the name on the return address, Kyle Paisley, was not a graduate of college administration.
City College has benefited from larger donations. It has raised $17.2 million in funds since the beginning of the fiscal year in July.
But dr. Menon said the value of the gift was less about the dollar amount and more about “evidence of what the physics department has provided all these years.”
He noted that since the annual tuition at City College is $7,500, the donation would go far beyond an expensive private institution in providing scholarships.
Officials both at the college and throughout the CUNY system could not recall a similar type of donation. “Kyle Paisley” appeared to be a false name, said Police Chief Pat Morena, chief of the Public Safety Department at City College, the founding school in the city’s public college system, the nation’s largest public urban college system.
“Who gets $180,000 in currency sent to them, and the person sending it is anonymous?” he asked.
It was also striking that the donation was intended for the physics department, which has a long and rich history. In 1921, Albert Einstein gave one of his earliest lectures there in the US, and the department has long surpassed its weight, with three of its alumni becoming Nobel laureates in physics.
With the coronavirus pandemic rumbling the mail delivery on campus, the inconspicuous box likely sat in the college’s main mailroom for months as “an ordinary, everyday package” and was eventually taken to Dr. Menon, most likely in March, said Robin Cruz, who runs the mailroom.
But Dr. Menon has been teaching remotely since March 2020. He was doing research in a lab on the opposite side of campus from his chairman’s office and didn’t check his office mail until late in the summer.
“It’s bizarre that it was just sitting in the mailroom, or even that it was sent in the mail — the person trusted the system so much,” said Dr Menon, who was suspicious of even touching the money when he opened the box. opened.
The money was “treated as evidence” and stored in a safe deposit box at the Public Safety Bureau, whose officials have contacted federal authorities “to see if it was possible the proceeds of criminal activity,” Chief said. morena.
Based on information about the bands pooling the money, federal agents determined it had been withdrawn from several Maryland banks in recent years and was unrelated to criminal activity, the chief said.
The address on the package, a real house in Pensacola, Florida, did not identify anyone involved in the donation.
Officials at the Federal Postal Inspector’s Office were unable to obtain video of the package being shipped. So after a month-long investigation, authorities told university officials that the donor’s identification “was really untraceable,” Chief Morena said.
With that, CUNY’s board of directors was authorized to formally vote to accept the gift at its meeting on December 13.
They did so with staggering elation.
“That’s absolutely astounding, $180,000 in cash in a box,” board chairman William C. Thompson said before the vote.
When asked by a board member if this was a first, CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said: “Obviously it’s in a box. I think it’s a first.”
A board member, Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, said: “We need to bronze that box and put it in a display case as the most generous gift.”
She praised school officials for following the procedure: “They said, ‘We’re not returning this — we’ll take all due care.'”
dr. Menon said the money would have a major impact on the department, allowing it to fund two full-time scholarships a year for more than a decade. In the spirit of the donation, he said, the fellowship would require the students to “give back in some way,” perhaps through peer mentoring.
The professor, who emigrated from India in 1996, has studied and conducted research at public universities and private institutions, including Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Despite offers to teach in elite schools, Dr. Menon that he stayed at City College, in large part because of his dedication to providing affordable education to a diverse group of students, including many immigrants. Many of his students come from families that never attended college, and many have never been to a lab, he said.
“The impact factor of teaching here is much higher,” he said. “It’s a place where you can lift someone up.”